In the Field: The New Zeiss Milvus Lenses Ride the Canon 1Dx Mark II


If the sight of an impeccably maintained Mercedes-Benz Gullwing, Ferrari 512M, a Formula Ford, BMW CSL, Caldwell D7, or an orange “Dukes of Hazard” Dodge Challenger make your heart throb, you owe it to yourself to visit the Saratoga Automobile Museum, in Saratoga Springs, NY. Even if you’re not into cars, the museum is located smack dab in the middle of the Saratoga Spa State Park, a 2,500 acre park with awesome scenery and air as sweet as honey.

Housed in a restored, 20,000-square-foot, neo-classically styled bottling plant, built in 1934, the Saratoga Automobile museum can exhibit up to 30 cars in its three galleries. A rotation of themed exhibits is combined with permanent exhibits, including a history of auto racing in New York State, and the New York State Stock Car Association Hall of Fame.

What better place to field-test three new Milvus-series lenses from Zeiss; the 15mm f/2.8 ZE, 18mm f/2.8 ZE, and 135mm f/2.0 ZE. Zeiss’s Milvus-series lenses are updated versions of Zeiss’s popular manual-focus ZE (Canon EF-mount) and ZF.2 (Nikon-mount) lenses. As a test camera, we employed a Canon EOS 1Dx Mk II, which proved to be well up to the challenge.  

All Zeiss Milvus-series lenses, including the new 15, 18, and 135mm lenses, are available with Nikon F/FX-compatible ZF.2 lens mounts. It should also be noted Zeiss offers a 4-lens (21mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm) Milvus ZF.2 lens bundle that includes a hard case with an inlaid, custom padded interior. No word on a similar ZE bundle for Canon shooters at this time—stay tuned.

As with Zeiss Batis, Loxia, and Touit lenses, Zeiss’s Milvus-series lenses are named after a genus of birds—specifically Red, Black, and Yellow-billed kites.

In terms of being bird-like, the only things birdlike about Milvus-series manual focus lenses are their svelte, aerodynamic looking lens barrels. Milvus-series lenses are solid and hefty and can be easily mistaken for medium-format lenses. In practice, all three lenses felt balanced and complemented the heft and mass of Canon’s 1Dx Mk II camera body.

Unlike their straight-arrow, all-metal, groove-etched predecessors (Zeiss’s original ZE and ZF.2-series lenses), the lens barrels on Zeiss’s Milvus lenses feature a satin finish with a texture-free, rubber-coated focus ring with large rotation angles, which enable quick, positive focus action. The new lenses are also weatherproof, and like all Zeiss lenses, feature T*anti-reflective coatings to reduce flare and ghosting. All three lenses also feature floating elements to maintain edge-to-edge sharpness at all focusing distances.

Crisp, clean details of a Mercedes Benz Gullwing captured with a Zeiss Milvus 18mm/f2.8 ZE

Focusing is smooth and positive, thanks, in part, to their bright f/2.8 and f/2 maximum apertures. The wide apertures afforded by each of these lenses also enable a range of control of selective focusing. The new Milvus lenses support all exposure modes (ASPM) and feature an interface that transmits lens EXIF data to the camera body.

If your plans include video capture, Milvus lenses are compatible with Zeiss’s follow-focus Lens Gear System. Milvus ZF.2-series lenses (Nikon mount) also feature a de-click function that enables filmmakers to adjust the aperture freely and smoothly to adjust exposure on the fly under changing light conditions.

Zeiss Milvus 15mm/f2.8 ZE

Zeiss’s Milvus 15mm/f2.8 ZE is a hefty number that captures a 110° angle of view when used on a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera. Based on Zeiss’s classic Distagon optical design formula, the lens displays nary a trace of color fringing or distortion across the entire viewing field. The Zeiss 15mm Milvus contains 15 elements in 12 groups, including dual aspheric elements, special anomalous partial dispersion glass, and a floating element design for optimized edge sharpness when shooting close up. To facilitate quiet, step-less aperture adjustments when shooting video, the aperture ring on the Milvus 15mm/f2.8 ZE can be de-clicked. The Zeiss 15mm/f2.8 Milvus ZE accepts 95mm filters.

Close-ups and wide views captured with the Zeiss Milvus 15mm/f2.8 ZE

Zeiss Milvus 18mm/f2.8 ZE

Physically smaller and not quite as wide as its 15mm sibling, the Zeiss Milvus 18mm/f2.8 ZE is a classic Distagon design that contains 14 elements in 12 groups, including dual aspheric and floating elements. Zeiss’s all-new 18mm lens focuses down to less than 1' (0.25m), accepts 77mm filters, and takes in a near distortion-free field of view of 99.9°. Like the aperture ring on the lens’s wider 15mm sibling, the aperture ring on the Milvus 18mm/f2.8 ZE can be de-clicked for smooth, silent aperture control when shooting video.

Selectively focused details and broad views with deep focus are equally easy to capture with the Zeiss Milvus 18mm/f2.8 ZE

This is the museum’s New York State Stock Car Association Hall of Fame, as seen through the Zeiss Milvus 18mm/f2.8 ZE (left) and the slightly wider Zeiss Milvus 15mm/f2.8 ZE (right). When your back is to the wall and you can’t move any farther, three millimeters makes a huge difference.

Zeiss Milvus 135mm/f2.0 ZE

The longest focal length in Zeiss’s Milvus lens series is the über-fast Zeiss Milvus 135mm/f2.0 ZE. With an impressively close-focusing distance of 2.62', this apochromatic lens, which displays little, if anything, in the way of optical aberrations, is ideal for selectively focused portraits and other applications requiring a midrange telephoto perspective with close focusing abilities. The Zeiss Milvus 135mm/f2.0 ZE has a rotation angle of 268° that enables snappy manual focusing, contains 11 elements in 8 groups, accepts 77mm filters, and captures a field-of-view of 18.7°.

The Milvus 135/f2 ZE captures the finest of detail with, depending on your choice of aperture, a range of focus depths.

The museum even has a hands-on, auto-themed kiddie area with all kinds of car-related activities, including coloring pads for designing and coloring motorcycle helmets.

The children’s activity center at the Saratoga Automobile Museum, as seen through a Zeiss Milvus 15mm/f2.8 ZE

The front of the Saratoga Automobile Museum, in Saratoga Springs, NY

Solid Optical Performance

Zeiss’s latest Milvus-series manual focus lenses maintain the company’s tradition of designing and manufacturing the finest optics money can buy. The construction quality of these lenses is first class, and the images they produce deliver sharp edge-to-edge detail and faithful color rendition with minimal perceptual optical distortions or color aberrations. If you prefer hefty lenses that fill your mitt, demand solid optical performance, precision engineering, and you can live without autofocus, Zeiss’s Milvus-series lenses are well worth the price of admission.

1 Comment

At long last!  I bought the Nikkor 14mm "rectilinear lens in hopes of getting less lens flare than the Nikkor 15mm manual lens about ten years ago, but found that it not only has the same lens flare issues, but also adds a weird gull wing curve at the edges, so I went back to using the manual lens, which had easier curves to correct.  This looks like it might answer both issues so I'll give it a try!